Showcasing intricate carvings in gemstone, shell, coral and crystal that measure just one to three inches each, this exhibition features more than 170 European cameo carvings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Nearly every piece was carved out of a single stone or shell and made creative use of the natural layers of color present in the materials. Some utilize not only two layers of color but multiple layers, a mark of truly skilled artists. Cameo carving has a long history, going back to the Paleolithic era. Alexander the Great commissioned the first cameo portrait. Julius Caesar was known for his love of cameos.
Among the many subjects represented in the collection are detailed designs of biblical and mythological scenes, images of gods, goddesses and philosophers, as well as historical portraits. It is rare to see a single collection contain such notable examples of artistry and design.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when these particular cameos were created, cameos had what could only be called their "Romantic period." During this time, the quality of carving excelled, and soon they became popular subjects for jewelry, and often were simply collected for private gem cabinets. Many schools for gemcarving existed in Rome and Florence making cameos the popular choice for souvenirs when travelers toured Italy.
While the individual artists remain unidentified, each cameo in this collection offers a unique window to the past. The collection was bought by Phoenix Art Museum Trustee and famed jewelry designer, Pierre Touraine, in 1944. The cameos remained in the Touraine’s private collection until they were donated to Phoenix Art Museum in 1983. This exhibition will mark the first display of these cameos in Phoenix and only the second recorded instance of them ever being shown to the public.